A Chinese Perspective on Solar Geoengineering (Opinion Article)

Weng and Ying (2014) – A Chinese Perspective on Solar Geoengineering – Click for Download

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 11.43.23 AMWith emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) continuing to escalate, scientists and policymakers are giving increasing attention to solar geoengineering or solar radiation management (SRM): a suite of hypothetical technologies with the potential to dramatically alter the dynamics of climate change and cool the climate. The recently published Summary for Policymakers of Working Group 1 in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report states: “modeling indicates that SRM methods, if realizable, have the potential to substantially offset a global temperature rise.”[1] But the report also indicates that “the level of understanding about [reducing incoming solar radiation] is low, and it is difficult to assess feasibility and efficacy because of remaining uncertainties in important climate processes and the interactions among those processes.”

The mention of geoengineering in this report has been interpreted as recognition of theoretical “Plan B”. Some believe that it reflects growing governmental interest in the capacity of these ideas to address climate change if governments fail to adequately reduce GHG emissions. Concerns are centered on governments who would unilaterally experiment with large-scale earth system manipulations, purportedly to cope with climate change.

It has often been speculated that China, as one of world’s largest and fastest growing GHG emitters and a significant player in climate negotiations, would unilaterally resort to this “Plan B”. There are some debates on why and how China would carry out geoengineering, but none of these arguments have been supported by solid evidence. Such purported rationales are extrapolated from China’s social, political and cultural aspects, and undue judgments are made on the possibility of its actions on geoengineering. This article will examine these assumptions and try to explain that with current available information, these arguments on China’s position and strategies towards geoengineering can be fallible.

As one of the major emerging developing countries, China plays an important role in the international climate negotiations and faces a very serious challenge in emission abatement. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) Statistics, China emitted 7.26 billion tons of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion in 2010, accounting for about 23.8% of world total, while the United States accounted for 17.7%, and the EU accounted for 12.1%.[2] Supposing that China maintains a rapid economic growth of 8%, it would probably emit nearly ten billion tons of CO2 in 2020, even if the target of a 40-45% decrease in carbon intensity has been realized. Hence, the Chinese government has always attached great importance to addressing climate change issues.

Although China’s efforts in CO2 mitigation has been recognized as substantial, there are concerns that these efforts – in addition to the efforts of other states – may not be enough to slow the warming of the globe. Some therefore surmise that China might be tempted to carry out geoengineering activities. There are media comments that list China as one of the four countries – “the US, Russia, China and Israel – who possess the technology and organization to regularly alter weather and geologic events for various military and black operations.”[3] For example, Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Australia’s Charles Sturt University and a prominent critic of geoengineering, suggests in his latest book Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering that China might be one of the most likely candidates to go it alone with an SRM technique like sulphate aerosol spraying.[4] The reasoning process goes: “China is highly vulnerable to water shortages in the north, with declining crop yields and food price rises expected, and storms and flooding in the east and south. Climate-related disasters in China are already a major source of social unrest so there is a well-founded fear in Beijing that the impacts of climate change in the provinces could topple the government in the capital”; and therefore, “the political dilemma over geoengineering will perhaps be most acute in China.” [5]

It is correct that China is vulnerable to negative climate impacts, and is under tremendous pressure to reduce GHG emissions while maintaining rapid economic growth. However, there is no direct causal relationship between the fear of social disruption and the resort to geoengineering. Taking into consideration the immense uncertainty associated with SRM techniques, it would be more logical to exclude geoengineering in the options to appease social unrest.

Besides the fear of social disruption, another typical emphasis on Chinese temptations toward geoengineering is that China has been paying a lot of attention to the use of artificial weather technologies, particularly in drought and water management. Therefore, China has the capacity and disposition to unilaterally carry out geoengineering.

It may be the case that China has done some weather modification programs. But as revealed by Fleming, technological interventions into local weather have a long and checkered history, and are employed in dozens of countries in some form or other.[6] Practices to stimulate artificial rainfalls are occasionally reported in the Chinese media, especially in order to ensure good weather for large-scale public events such as the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and thus were extensively exposed to the international media. As a result, some critics and even meteorological scientists may conflate these weather modification techniques with a generalized notion of “geoengineering”, and raise various questions over unilateral implementation.

Compared with some other countries that confine weather modification technologies at the experimental stage, China uses weather modification technologies relatively frequently. However, weather modification technologies in China are strictly implemented only under specific weather conditions, and in a small range of area. These activities are no more than an accelerated process of precipitation. Only when there are mature precipitation conditions and strong necessity, will there be a limited scale and time period of artificial intervention. Moreover, all these activities are subject to the Regulation of Weather Modification, issued by the Central People’s Government of China.[7] It stipulates that weather modification means can only be used to avoid or mitigate meteorological disasters, such as drought, under appropriate conditions. China cannot carry out unilateral climate engineering simply because it attempts to control weather on a local and seasonal scale. There are levels of magnitude in between local weather control and global geoengineering in terms of scientific knowledge, and human, financial and material resources.

It was only at the end of 2012 that China began to list geoengineering in its supporting category of the National Natural Science Foundation of China.[8] This decision can be interpreted as a desire to develop a national capacity fpr understanding or keeping up with research in the western countries. In fact, there are very few research articles on geoengineering-related topics in Chinese academia. These articles have mostly emerged in the past five years; many of them are observations about research and debates in the western countries, and have expressed a good deal of skepticism about geoengineering.

Currently, China has focused more on carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS); though these are still in the “introduction-trial” demonstration stage and far from being commercialized. This may demonstrate a potential interest in particular forms of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), but not in SRM. Indeed, in contrast with many studies conducted in Europe and North America, China has not yet commenced modeling or field tests into any suite of geoengineering technology. Top climate change scientists have all expressed concerns over the risks of geoengineering. Ding Yihui, the Special Adviser on Climate Change of the China Meteorological Administration (CMA), has noted: “If human beings continue to emit GHGs, the implementation of geoengineering could only change shortwave radiation, while the Earth’s long-wave radiation problem which is caused by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases remains not solved.”[9] A recently article in the Pacific Review on China’s “blunt temptations of geoengineering” also expressed a similar opinion: “While Chinese climate scientists are keenly aware of the potential benefits of geoengineering as well as risks, there is no significant constituency currently promoting unilateral implementation of SRM.”[10]

There is a gap in the research on the science and regulation of geoengineering between China and most research activities that have actually taken place in developed countries. Lack of adequate dialogues with international academic community and media may attribute to the speculations on China’s perspectives. As geoengineering has global implications, developing countries like China need to be included in international discussions about research and governance activities. Good governance mechanisms are indispensable in order to make sure that any research that proceeds is safe, transparent, inclusive, and responsible, and to encourage international cooperation. China should seek support for capacity-building in this area, and actively engage in the development of governance guidelines or rules under existing international treaties, institutions, or regimes, which are still rudimentary at the current stage, to eliminate misunderstanding and promote cooperation.

References:

Andersson, M. 2012. “At War over Geoengineering.” Letters, The Guardian, Feb. 9.. Accessed January 2014 at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/feb/09/at-war-over-geoengineering

Boyd, O. 2012. “China Could Move First to Geoengineer the Climate.” Chinadialogue, Apr. 30. Accessed January 2014 at: http://tom.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/5952-China-could-move-first-to-geoengineer-the-climate

Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China. 2005. “Regulation of Weather Modification.” Accessed January 2014 at: http://www.gov.cn/yjgl/2005-09/27/content_70707.htm

Edney, K. and J. Symons. 2013. “China and the Blunt Temptations of Geoengineering: the Role of Solar Radiation Management in China’s Strategic Response to Climate Change.” The Pacific Review, published online Jul 2. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/m7PvHD8PDrb9iGaKtbz3/full#.Ut7GK_Y1ioQ

Fleming, J.R. 2012. Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hamilton, C. 2013a. Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hamilton, C. 2013b. “Why Geoengineering has Immediate Appeal to China.” The Guardian, Mar. 22. Accessed January 2014 at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/mar/22/geoengineering-china-climate-change

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2013. Climate Change 2013 The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policymakers. Working Group I Contribution to the Firth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Available at: http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/uploads/WGI_AR5_SPM_brochure.pdf

International Energy Agency 2012. CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion: Highlights. Available at: http://www.iea.org/co2highlights/co2highlights.pdf

Ji, F. and Zhong Y.G. 2010. “Is China Ready for Human Interference with the Climate?” Pioneering with Science and Technology. (5): 30-35.

National Natural Science Foundation of China. 2012. “NSFC Project Guidelines (Earth Sciences Section).” Advances in Earth Science. 27(1): 1-13.


[1] IPCC, 2013

[2] IEA, 2012

[3] Andersson, 2012

[4] Boyd, 2013, referring to Hamilton, 2013a.

[5] Hamilton, 2013b

[6] Fleming, 2012

[7] PCG, 2005

[8] NSFC, 2012

[9] Ji and Zhong, 2010

[10] Edney and Symons, 2013

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